Sunday, February 28, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 3

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2

1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (first broadcast September 16, 1990): While convalescing during wartime, Hastings is met by an old friend, John Cavendish, who invites the officer to stay with him at his mother’s manor home, Styles Court. Hastings discovers there is much discord in the household, particularly over the recent marriage of Cavendish’s widowed mother to the much younger Alfred Inglethorp. Even though Inglethorp dotes most kindly upon the older woman, Evie Howard, Mrs. Inglethorp’s devoted but outspoken companion, is most especially aggrieved by this new husband and insists murderous intent is in the air. Meanwhile, Hastings encounters Hercule Poirot, a detective he met many years before in Belgium, dislocated from his country by war and, along with several other Belgian refugees, enjoying Mrs. Inglethorp’s beneficence. One night shortly thereafter, Mrs. Inglethorp, wakes the household with an alarming paroxysm and suddenly dies. Suspecting foul play, Hastings persuades John Cavendish to allow Hercule Poirot to investigate and the detective discovers multiple motives that point away from the most obvious suspects.

Written in 1916 and first published (in the United States!) in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie’s very first novel and marks the first-ever written appearance of the remarkable and beloved literary creation, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Challenged by her sister to write a whodunit that could not be deduced, Christie used the classic “manor house” murder cliché as the set piece, something that she hardly invented but later came to be renowned for in the entirety of detective fiction, even despite many clever attempts at refuting such fictional mores. Setting Hastings as the story’s narrator – much like Watson’s telling of Holmes’ adventures – further allows Miss Christie to lead the reader down the garden path. Seeing things through an everyman’s eyes – or seeing what we are meant to see – allows the writer (even the scenarist) to introduce a much more clever sleuth into the picture, who sees exactly what we do but in a completely different way. We all have to look at the red herrings while the real detective can see past them. A clever conceit, which helps Miss Christie effectively win the bet she was first challenged with, particularly in the peculiar and hardly believable unraveling of this most intoxicating mysterious affair – the model for as many of the terrifically enchanting Christie tales hereafter as the countless stories from those who copied or parodied the formula in all those years since then. The only real argument against the book’s utterly engaging premise is one that must be made with the benefit of hindsight. The book presents Poirot as an old man, already retired as a Belgian detective, in the first of his British escapades, or the first of his adventures as a British citizen. Somehow, through literary slight of hand, he amassed nearly 50 more years of adventures in print until his appropriately-titled finale, Curtain, which was written during World War II but not published until 1975, a few months before Miss Christie’s own death and, quite notably, also set at Styles.

The feature length film, scripted by Clive Exton and directed by series newcomer Ross Devenish (who only helmed the series’ One, Two Buckle My Shoe hereafter), was first broadcast by ITV on Sunday, September 16, 1990, exactly one hundred years and one day after the birth day of its creator and originator, Miss Agatha Christie, as a celebration of her life, her magnificent work and her great contribution to the literary arts (the show’s premier also comes close to marking the 70th anniversary of the book’s initial publication). Everything is more than up to par for such an auspicious occasion. This feature-length film is the first in the series to dispense with the series’ main title sequence and the familiar Poirot main theme, employing instead a time and place setting montage for the main titles, scored by a sumptuous theme (Christopher Gunning’s entire score here is particularly notable). The film makes several changes to simplify the story, including changing Mrs. Inglethorp to John Cavendish’s mother (not step-mother); dropping Dr. Bauerstein and his back story as a spy (the film, however, doesn’t explain how Dr. Wilkins arrives so quickly to the scene of the dying lady); making Mary Cavendish an adulterer; a missing coffee cup and an otherwise conveniently-timed narcotic administered to several protagonists. All water under the bridge.

David Suchet, in particular, provides an extra gravity to his personification of a necessarily younger Poirot here, something he’s only hinted at before. He is, most properly, “a dandy”: warm and witty, unyielding and unapologetic. He’s also still very much the intellectual and every bit the cut-up. Whereas his previous performances were just and judicious, this is the performance where he owns the character of Poirot. Suchet’s past performances are well studied and well delivered. Here, it is like a second skin. It will be like this, almost religiously, throughout the remainder of the series. While Suchet continues to do much other wonderfully notable work in film and television (galaxies away from the Christie universe), he has never so beautifully had the opportunity to so inhabit a character, to make him breathe and live like Poirot. And, surely, no other actor can possibly be considered anywhere near as substantially or as seriously in the role of the funny little Belgian detective as this great and very British actor. David Suchet is Hercule Poirot. And it begins right here. Thankfully Granada did right by this story and it stands as one of the Poirot series’ best achievements. Beatie Edney, as Mary Cavendish, also appears as Mrs. Hemmings in the 2009 Poirot film The Clocks. Curiously, Anthony Calf, who plays Lawrence here, plays another Cavendish, Stephen, in the 1999 “Dead Man’s Eleven” episode of Midsomer Murders, which also featured Penelope Beaumont, who plays Mrs. Raikes in this Poirot film.

2. How Does Your Garden Grow? (first broadcast January 6, 1991): An elderly lady writes a mysterious and desperate letter asking Hercule Poirot for his assistance with a very delicate family matter. With his curiosity properly raised, Poirot agrees to help the woman only to find out she has died before they can meet. Upon visiting the lady’s house, Poirot is greeted by the lady’s niece, Mrs. Delafontaine, and her husband, both who inhabit the house, and Katrina Rieger, the lady’s Russian nurse and companion, and he realizes something is very wrong in this peculiar household. First published in 1935 in the UK and included in book Poirot’s Early Cases and, in the US, as part of The Regatta Mystery, How Does Your Garden Grow takes its title from the English nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” which also lent credence to the 1971 film Pretty Maids All In A Row, staring Rock Hudson, of the 1980 film version of The Mirror Crack’d, and Roddy McDowall, of the 1982 film version of the Poirot mystery Evil Under The Sun. This film, directed by Brian Farnham, who also helmed some of the series’ more stylish outings including Wasp’s Nest, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, Dead Man’s Mirror, Lord Edgware Dies and Evil Under the Sun, and scripted by Andrew Marshall, who also wrote this series’ The Affair at the Victory Ball, gets any number of changes in its transition from the short story. In the book, while there are plenty of horticultural references, there is no flower show, no cleverly revealing seed packet passed onto Poirot and no poetic burying of a silver servant’s bell in the garden. Katrina gets a fairly involved back story that figures nicely into the plot, the film’s unloved Mr. Delafontaine develops a drink problem and, here, the old lady’s solicitor engages in an outrageously symbolic telling of the will to Poirot using a horse show! Also, the book lacks the character of Hastings, who in the film develops what he thinks is hay fever – which keeps him away from flowers – that turns out to be an allergy to Poirot’s not exactly manly cologne. Inspector Japp replaces the book’s Inspector Sims and so on. All of this suggests that the scenarist did a marvelously picturesque job placing Miss Christie’s story in front of the camera. Miss Lemon, who has one of her first major roles in Christie’s story, takes a pleasantly major role in the film too. Curiously, while the dénouement works out more or less the same in the film as the book – at least as far as the protagonists are concerned – the method which dispatches the old lady to the next life is considerably different, even though oysters are involved in both cases. The nicely marked-up story also parallels Miss Christie’s “The Cornish Mystery,” in that an older woman seeking Poirot’s assistance is killed before Poirot can do anything to help. Catherine Russell, as Katrina Reiger, also played as Pamela Horsfall in the 2009 Poirot film Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Anne Stallybrass, as Mary Delafontaine, also appeared in the 1982 film The Man In The Mist, as part Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime.

3. The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (first broadcast January 13, 1991): The London and Scottish Bank wishes to extend its business overseas to America and arranges to transfer one million dollars in government bonds by ship traveling from England to New York with a bank trustee. During the ship’s voyage, the bonds disappear. Poirot investigates. First published in 1923 and included in the book Poirot Investigates and also known as “The Great Bond Robbery” in the US, The Million Dollar Bond Robbery is the first of eleven Poirot films scripted by the imaginative Anthony Horowitz (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, the well-done Collision) and the first in the series of films to differ rather substantially from the original story. Both the story and the film agree in general premise, as outlined above, and, most particularly, in the identity of the guilty party. But both take very different courses to their similar conclusions. Horowitz’s version is, arguably, superior in many ways. It is certainly more colorful, with many more red herrings and splashy additions including a duplicitous woman, a banker with (literately convenient) gambling debts, a dictatorial security director, several arrests and an ocean voyage for Poirot and Hastings (required by the fact that the film has Poirot hired by the bank before the robbery, whereas the book finds an interested party consulting Poirot after the robbery). The film’s only flaw is, perhaps, the method(s) employed to remove one bank employee from the task of transferring the bonds to America. The book has the employee merely getting sick whereas the film entertains several overtly suspicious ways of removing the employee from the task. Director Andrew Grieve nicely spices up the proceedings with mock documentary inserts – which probably come out of the script – and lovely art deco sets that replicate the bank and the Queen Mary, which probably come from the series’ first-rate production design. The film, which also uses a bank as its touchstone, cleverly makes reference to The Lost Mine, broadcast almost a year to the day before this film (Horowitz is exceptionally referential in most of his scripts). But the film’s ocean voyage also recalls such later sea-faring Christie stories as Problem at Sea (1935) and, of course, Death on the Nile (1945). Oliver Parker, as Philip Ridegeway, also appeared in the excellent 1987 Miss Marple film Nemesis while David Quilter, as Mr. Shaw, also appeared in the 1984 episode of Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime’s “The Crackler” and Ewan Hooper, as Mr. Vavasour, also appeared in the same series as part of the 1984 episode “The Case of the Missing Lady.”

4. The Plymouth Express (first broadcast January 20, 1991): Mrs. Rupert Carrington, who is separated from her spendthrift husband and engaged in an affair with the unscrupulous Count de la Rochefour, loses her jewels and her life while traveling on the Plymouth Express train with her maid. Her devoted father, a wealthy industrialist named (Ebenezer, in the book, Gordon, in the film) Halliday, seeks Poirot’s assistance in finding out what happened. First published in the UK in 1923 as The Mystery of the Plymouth Express and published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of The Under Dog and Other Stories, The Plymouth Express was scripted by former actor Rod Beacham in his only Poirot outing and directed by Andrew Piddington, who also directed the series’ The Double Clue, broadcast several weeks later. This story sets the foundation for Christie’s slightly later and much stronger Poirot novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), which even uses the same name for one of the guilty culprits. Christie’s original story is thinly plotted and the film, which benefits from some of the series’ best looking art-deco sets and some pumped-up story lines, is sadly just as thin. The book’s story turns on Inspector Japp’s discovery of a jewel thief and Poirot’s conceit of a vivid description of the victim’s clothing (“electric blue,” which prefaces the blue in the title of the much more intricately plotted novel). But the filmed version of The Plymouth Express turns, rather unbelievably, on one of Poirot’s hunches that lead Japp to the jewel thief and his accomplice. Perhaps the most significant fault of both the story and the film is that you don’t really care whether Mrs. Carrington lives or dies. Indeed, her father’s affections seem thoroughly unwarranted and rather hard to believe. No one really cares about the jewels either. It all strangely suggests that mysteries solved and crimes punished are preferable to people helped and justice done. The dénouement presented in the film is, however, nicely staged and sequenced. This is one of the few films in the series that’s more fun to watch than think about. Julian Wadham, as Rupert Carrington, was also seen in the 2006 Marple film Sleeping Murder.

5. Wasp’s Nest (first broadcast January 27, 1991): Hercule Poirot encounters an old friend, John Harrison, whose engagement to the beautiful Molly Deane has recently been announced. Harrison’s home is coincidentally besotted by a horde of wasps, for which he has engaged Claude Langton, a friend and also formerly Molly’s lover, to dispel. Poirot goes on to make several discoveries that lead him to believe a murder is about to occur. First published in 1928 as The Worst of All (perhaps a religious reference to the story’s threat of suicide and the perception of “suicide as murder”), Wasp’s Nest was later published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases (1974) and in the US as part of Double Sin and Other Stories (1961). The story was also adapted by Agatha Christie herself for a BBC television play broadcast on June 18, 1937. The show was only broadcast in London and starred Francis L. Sullivan (1903-56), who reprised his portrayal of Poirot, which he had performed with critical definitiveness in the plays Alibi (a dramatization of Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and Miss Christie’s own 1930 stage play Black Coffee (Sullivan later won a Tony award for his performance in Christie’s stage play Witness For The Prosecution). Despite Miss Christie’s obvious affection for this story, which displays Poirot’s intuitive gifts in a preventive manner, this story is a little difficult to swallow. It took some mettle to stretch the thinly plotted tale into a 50-minute film. But the filmmakers introduce an illness for Inspector Japp, which keeps him out of the story he wasn’t originally a part of, a summer fete, which more realistically reunites Harrison with Poirot (though why the city-dwelling Poirot attends a village fete at all is a real mystery here), a silly sub-plot of Poirot reading tea leaves and the trumping up of Molly Deane as a super model of the day. The film’s final 15 minutes encompass the whole of the very short story (which explains why Miss Christie’s original teleplay was only some twenty minutes in length). The preceding half hour or so of this film is all filler. The hunches and deductions that Poirot derives in the story are ludicrous in the extreme. Even the film finds Suchet’s Poirot exasperated, claiming that he is “solving a crime that does not even exist.” One must commend Miss Christie for – yet, again – toying with the dictums of detective fiction: in this case, preventing a crime that has not yet occurred. But any suggestion that this story is realistic or compelling is hollow at best.

6. The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor (first broadcast February 3, 1991): Mr. Maltravers is discovered lying dead on his estate, Marsdon Manor, of an apparent internal hemorrhage. The circumstances are not immediately questionable but for the appearance of blood coming out of his mouth and the fact that the man had insured himself only a few weeks before for a large sum of money benefiting his wife. Poirot investigates. First published in 1923 and known also as The Marsdon Manor Tragedy in the US, The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor was included in the book Poirot Investigates and is a clever short story that finds Agatha Christie employing a bit of psychoanalysis and ghostly tomfoolery in an effort to discover murder through possible insurance fraud. The film changes the written tale considerably and rather imaginatively by introducing a ghost story that suggests something along the lines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an innkeeper who writes murder mysteries in his spare time, a wax museum that includes the famous Belgian detective (!), a devoted and probably lovelorn secretary (Miss Rawlinson), broken eggs and a painting whose shadows help reveal the clue that solves the crime for Poirot. In the book, Maltravers’s insurance company asks Poirot to investigate the death whereas the film clumsily introduces Poirot into the mystery by having him literally run into the cops called onto the scene of the crime. Also, Poirot plays a game of word association with Captain Black to inexplicably piece together the means of murder in the book, whereas the film uses Poirot’s spotting of a headline in an English language African newspaper, which Captain Black has used to wrap a present for Mrs. Maltravers, to unravel the plot just as unbelievably. Either way, the film compares quite favorably to the book, beautifully employing many cinematic ghost-story conventions and effects to enliven the typical talky and cerebral Poirot plot. Geraldine Alexander, as Susan Maltravers, also portrayed the equally unhinged Gwenda Reed in the memorable 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder, which also featured Edward Jewesbury (1917-2002), who plays Dr. Bernard in this Poirot film. Anita Carey, as Miss Rawlinson, also appeared in the underrated 1985 cable television film presentation of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence and, as it is referenced above, it should be noted that Neil Duncan (aka Alastair Duncan), as Captain Black, made his memorable acting debut as Dr. Mortimer in the 1988 film of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.

7. The Double Clue (first broadcast February 10, 1991): Marcus Hardiman, a wealthy jewel collector, is robbed during a social affair held at his home. Several party guests were seen around the room where the jewels disappeared, including Russian Countess Vera Rossakoff, Lady Runcorn and Bernard Parker, a partner of Hardiman’s. Two clues are discovered at the scene of the crime, a man’s glove and an engraved cigarette case. Poirot is asked to find out what happened with a discretion that will protect everyone’s social standing. First published in 1923, The Double Clue was later published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases (1974) and in the US as part of Double Sin and Other Stories (1961). It is the first of Christie’s stories to introduce the Countess Vera Rossakov, who also appears in The Big Four and The Capture of Cerberus (she’s also mentioned in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe), and is surely the influential counterpart to the sexless Poirot that Irene Adler (introduced in A Scandal in Bohemia) was to the sexless Sherlock Holmes. The film was the second (and last) Poirot tale directed by Andrew Piddington and the second Poirot film scripted by Anthony Horowitz, who does much to enliven Miss Christie’s unusually brief story – told from Hastings’s mostly disgusted point of view. Horowitz puts Japp’s job on the line, as he has been unable to solve a string of jewel robberies among high society (a la To Catch A Thief), a grand party with a famous opera singer providing the entertainment (it’s merely a tea party in the book) and a tramp who is not a tramp (and someone whose role is never quite clear in all of this). Horowitz also, most significantly, introduces the whiff of a budding romance – or mutual affection – between Poirot and the supposedly deposed Countess that isn’t part of the original story and the effect it has both professionally and personally on Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon. Despite the unusually mournful tone pervading much of this particular Poirot film, there are quite a few chuckles along the way, including the over-the-top effeminacy of Hardiman (who is clearly homosexual, even in the book, but also someone who is suggested to be engaged in some sort of an affair with Hardiman in the film) and the investigation Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon embark upon when they believe Poirot’s attentions are elsewhere.

8. The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (first broadcast February 17, 1991): Lady Alice Chatterton, one of Hercule Poirot’s fondest admirers, implores the great detective to help her friend, Mrs. Marguerita Clayton, whose husband is found dead, concealed in a large chest, at the home of a Major Rich following a party one evening. Major Rich, who is thought to be having an affair with Mrs. Clayton, is arrested for the murder. Poirot also becomes aware of incidents from the past, including a duel, where the affections of Marguerita were at stake. Poirot questions a number of the party guests including a Colonel Curtiss, who has long known the Claytons and Major Rich and was one of the last people to see the poor victimized Mr. Clayton alive. The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, which appeared in the book The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960) and was later included in the UK set While The Light Lasts and in the US set The Harlequin Tea Set an Other Stories (both 1997), is a 1960 rewrite of the 1932 story The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest, which originally appeared in the book of stories The Regatta Mystery (1939). It’s a ripping murder-mystery yarn with at least two plot holes big enough to drive a truck through (one: the hole in the chest would be easy to deduce by the shavings, and two: the victim’s manner of death would be a bit more obvious to discern than the story makes it seem. A possible third loophole in the book is Poirot’s decisive pronouncement of guilt upon the murderer. While there is certainly evidence of a murder, there is no evidence against the actual murderer.). Agatha Christie’s story makes reference to the macabre absurdity of stuffing a dead body into a chest fitted into a room where a party will take place, an allusion to the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play Rope, based on the Leopold and Loeb murders, the story Alfred Hitchcock famously turned into a 1948 film. Hilariously, Poirot goes on to claim on behalf of the author that “(b)ecause a theme has been used once, there is no reason why it should not be used again.” Not a bad point for a literary apology. Anthony Horowitz does a typically good job bringing the story from the page to the TV screen, playing up Poirot’s ego (“I am the detective.”) and eventual leavening of modesty (“It was nothing. I was lucky, that is all.”), adding Poirot and Hastings’s attendance at the slightly symbolic performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto (interjecting Hastings’s great summary of the opera, “Well it does have a couple good tunes, I suppose.”) and superimposing Poirot onto the party where the corpse is in attendance. Horowitz grandly overcomes Christie’s lack of evidence for the murder by conceiving a plan that flushes the killer out to confess it all himself. It’s still flimsy, but much more effective. Pip Torrens, who appears as Major John Rich, also appears as Jeremy Cloade in the 2006 Poirot film Taken at the Flood as well as Noel Coward (!) in the bizarre 2004 Marple film 4:50 From Paddington. Even more curiously, the actor Edward Clayton, who briefly appears as Sgt. Rouse here, plays in the same film where there is a character named Edward Clayton, portrayed by the always effective Malcolm Sinclair (Casino Royale, Midsomer Murders).

9. The Theft of the Royal Ruby (first broadcast February 24, 1991): An indiscreet young prince, on holiday in London, has a ruby of historically significant value to his country stolen from him by a female companion one evening. A Mr. Jesmond from the Home Office implores Hercule Poirot to spend the Christmas holiday with Colonel Lacey and his family in order to track down the jewel under the pretext of helping the family to disentangle the Lacey’s granddaughter, Sarah, from a relationship with the unsavory and disreputable Desmond Lee-Wortley. Poirot agrees to spend the Christmas holiday at Kings Lacey with the Colonel and Mrs. Lacey, Sarah, Desmond and his sister and David Welwyn, a Lacey associate with feelings for Sarah, and several crafty children. During the course of the holiday merriment, the detective discovers the royal ruby in the traditional Christmas pudding and sets about tracking down the thief who absconded with the jewel. The Theft Of The Royal Ruby was first published as The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1923 and was included under its original title in the UK collections Problem at Pollensa Bay and Christmas Adventure (1943 – “Christmas Adventure” is another one of this story’s titles), Poirot Knows the Murderer (1946) and While The Light Lasts (1997). It was also published as part of the American short story collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in 1961. The expanded version of the story first appeared in 1960 under the title given to the film and was included in the US collection Double Sin and Other Stories (1961). Like Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), the great detective is roused from his London flat to spend the Christmas holiday at a sprawling country manor to investigate a crime – though this story’s Lacey family is much more warm and festive than the brooding weirdoes of the later story’s Lee household. The film’s script, by Anthony Horowitz and Clive Exton, stays remarkably true to the original story, which is a miracle since they are able to successfully craft a 50-minute piece out of Christie’s novella. Christie’s story was, however, a good yarn in the first place. It is a jaunty sprite filled with fun and merriment and Miss Christie’s typically literary allusions – in this case, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of course) and Lewis Carroll. The scriptwriters had plenty of colorful material to work with and did not need to inflate much of the particularly strong story, though the mystery of how or why the Christmas holiday at the Laceys is of any significance to the theft of the royal ruby is as baffling in the novella as it is in the film. The film adds a well-conceived chase sequence that features the bad guys getting away in one of those beautifully stylish cars that lured the gendarmerie of Alfred Hitchock’s To Catch A Thief (1955) into a similarly picturesque chase. Frederick Treves (Colonel Horace Lacey) also appeared as Dr. Kennedy in the 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder while Helena Mitchell (Sarah Lacey) appeared as Elvira Blake in the 1987 Miss Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel. There are many fine character actors present here filling roles of much personality, rewarding this particular film with quite a few reasons to view it repeatedly.

10. The Affair At The Victory Ball (first broadcast March 3, 1991): Lord Cronshaw attends a grand Victory Ball party with a group of family and friends dressed as characters from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Cronshaw, dressed as Harlequin, is joined by his uncle and heir, the Honorable Eustace Beltrane, as Punchinello, a pretty American widow, Mrs. Mallaby, as Pulchinella, the actor Chris Davidson and his wife as Pierrot and Pierrette, and the popular actress Miss Coco Courtney, as Columbine. During the course of the party, Lord Cronshaw and Miss Courtney, who are involved in a relationship, have had an apparently upsetting falling out. Lord Cronshaw becomes moody and distant, then disappears from the other guests and is later discovered lying dead with a dinner knife struck through his heart. The next day, Coco Courtney is discovered dead in her bed, the victim of an apparent cocaine overdose. Poirot investigates. First published in the UK in 1923 and included in the UK as part of the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases (1974) and in the US as part of The Under Dog and Other Stories (1951), The Affair At The Victory Ball was the very first short story Agatha Christie ever published and one of the most pervasively colorful uses of theatrical symbolism in the entirety of her literature (Shakespearean and Jacobean references abound elsewhere, not to mention plenty of Biblical allusions as well). Renny Rye directs a particularly good-looking evocation of the story, alight with flamboyant costumes, appropriately over-the-top characters and some of the most sumptuous sets filmed in the series thus far. Andrew Marshall’s script suitably changes the theatre actors to radio performers, allowing Poirot to stage his dénouement as a radio program for mystery buffs rather than the mock stage play presented for the surviving characters in the book. The script also manages to get Poirot and Hastings to attend the Victory Ball – which they do not in the book – by conceiving of one James Ackerley, a famed radio producer and friend of Arthur Hastings, who hopes to meet the equally famed Hercule Poirot at the party. Poirot, of course, declines a costume for the party. But Hastings’s get up as The New Yorker’s man-about-town dandy, Eustace Tilley, is perfectly conceived – and particularly parfait as Hastings is often heard to consider Poirot as a “dandy” early on. The film remains true to the book’s implausible death of Coco Courtney, which, while not out of the realm of possibility, seems a bit unbelievable under the circumstances. Haydn Gwynne (Coco Courtney) also appears as Miss Battersby in the 2008 Poirot film Third Girl and Andrew Burt (James Ackerley) also appears as Dr. Quimper in the 1987 Miss Marple film 4:50 From Paddington.

11. The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (first broadcast March 10, 1991): Roger Havering and his wife, Zoe, are visiting Roger’s uncle, Harrington Pace, at Hunter’s Lodge, his house in the isolated countryside, until business calls Mr. Havering away. Later that same night, a strange bearded man comes to the house and shoots Harrington Pace dead. The killer makes his escape and the hysterical Mrs. Havering implores Mrs. Middleton, the housekeeper, to contact the authorities. Once the investigation into Harrington Pace’s murder begins, the housekeeper suddenly disappears as well. Illness prevents Poirot from actively investigating the crime, but it is he who finally discerns the true nature of what really happened. First published in the UK in 1923, The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge was published as part of the compendium Poirot Investigates. It is the only Poirot film scripted by actor/writer T.R. (Trevor) Bowen, who also penned the majority of the well-done Miss Marple films, including The Body in the Library (1984), A Pocketful of Rye (1984), The Murder at the Vicarage (1986), Nemesis (1987), 4:50 From Paddington (1987), A Carribean Mystery (1989), They Do It With Mirrors (1991) and The Mirror Crack’d (1992) (he also appeared in several of the episodes in the role of Raymond West). Bowen did much fluffing to bring this rather brief mystery to the screen, including the addition of a picturesque hunt (which prefigures Rex Stout’s 1955 novel Immune to Murder and, even to a certain degree, the 2001 Robert Altman film Gosford Park); Hastings’ existing relationship with Roger Havering, which accounts for the rather difficult-to-accept presence of Hastings and Poirot at the hunt; several characters not in the book (Jack Stoddard, a games keeper step-brother, Archie Havering, Pace’s nephew and a teacher not to-the-manor born, Mr. Anstruther, a man who has his bike stolen, and the real Mrs. Middleton – who does not exist in the book) to help flesh out the mystery with a few more suspects; and, most notably, a “clever dog” who sniffs out the guilty party in the end (surely a reference to the 1937 Poirot novel Dumb Witness, beautifully filmed for this series in 1996). While Bowen’s script maintains Christie’s use of disguise as deception (The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, Four And Twenty Blackbirds, The Dream, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, Lord Edgware Dies, After The Funeral, etc.), it also thankfully does away with Christie’s divine justice served upon the guilty at the story’s end due to the lack of proof Poirot or the criminal justice system can provide. While Bowen’s script does a pretty decent job with the material at hand, he enters several bicycles into the story to explain how someone who comes to a remote place in the harsh countryside with the intent of murder could make an easy getaway, a rather too obvious gaping plot point Christie’s story never answers. There are several other plot holes in this particular story that either Bowen attempts to putty up or are best looked over if one is to accept it all with any credulity. But as an entertaining lark of detective fiction, it is certainly a serviceable entry in the series, made ever more enjoyable by Bowen’s crafty staging. Shaughan Seymour (Archie Havering) also appeared as Napier in the 1989 Miss Marple film A Caribbean Mystery. Christopher Scoular (Sgt. Forgan) also appeared in the 1984 Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime episode “The Crackler.”

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 4
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 5
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 6
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 7
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 8
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eric Alexander On The Side

The prolific tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has recorded as abundantly as a sideman or “special guest” on other musicians’ discs as he has been recorded on his own. This doesn’t even count the many discs he’s made as part of the “One For All” all-star collective for the American Sharp Nine, Dutch Criss Cross and Japanese Venus labels.

Happily, the man has never had to beg for recording opportunities. Apparently they all come looking for him. Eric Alexander even makes a comfortable living from his music. Yes, he’s worked hard for it and deserves it. Considering not only the long history of great jazz players who have nearly starved for their art but, even more incredibly, the anemic state of jazz today and the current business of music itself, this is nothing short of a miraculous blessing for fans of good music.

Surprisingly, Eric Alexander never gets hoodwinked into crassly commercial crap or bizarre fusions that don’t match his particular thing. In his two-decade recording career, Eric Alexander has been a remarkably consistent player: always soulful and swinging and most mindfully melodic, particularly in his engaging songlike solos and always in a bag that could be described as his own.

The measly listing which follows is, by no means, intended to serve as any sort of complete coverage of Eric Alexander’s many, many sideman dates. The music under review here features some of the more notable sides of Eric Alexander’s sideman sides and those that deserve consideration in the wholeness of Eric Alexander’s extremely extended recorded universe. Perhaps others will discover these “sides” to appreciate the fullness of Eric Alexander’s joyful sound.

Kiss of Fire – Harold Mabern Trio/Special Guest Eric Alexander (Venus, 2002): The great Memphis pianist Harold Mabern is a significant mentor to Eric Alexander, having taught him very early on and been a member of one of the saxophonist’s primary working groups for nearly two decades now. The two have recorded some 13 discs together (to date) under Alexander’s name, as well as three discs with baritone legend Cecil Payne, one 1997 disc with trumpeter and One For All pal Jim Rotundi, a 1997 disc with trombonist and One For All pal Steve Davis, and a 2003 disc with the great drummer Joe Farnsworth (also of One For All), a frequent collaborator of both musicians and the drummer featured on this disc. This December 2001 recording, made a few weeks before Alexander’s Summit Meeting, also with Mabern and Farnsworth, is the only disc thus far under pianist Harold Mabern’s name that also features Eric Alexander. It’s a grand, swinging affair in Mabern’s long tradition of fine, melodically stylish presentations. Eric Alexander shines on four of the disc’s ten pieces: Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” Jimmy Van Heusen’s lovely “Nancy (With The Laughing Face),” Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake” (first heard on the sax legend’s 1962 Blue Note classic Go!) and a seemingly speedy take on the rather silly “Brazil.” Unfortunately, there are no Mabern originals here. But it is of little matter. Mabern is a masterful and most distinct stylist, something he displays throughout this enchanting disc, and proves that he has found a perfectly complimentary foil in the great Eric Alexander. Mabern and Alexander make for a purely magical combination.

Smokin’ Out Loud – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2003): Every Tuesday night at a New York City club called Smoke, pianist Mike LeDonne has held court as the leader of a Hammond B3 organ jazz combo, often featuring tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. This studio outing, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, presents the pianist as an organist in his Smoke setting with Eric Alexander in tow throughout. It is not only pianist LeDonne’s first appearance on disc as an organist – and quite a fine one at that – but also one of the keyboardist’s earliest recordings with Eric Alexander (Alexander first played with LeDonne on the pianist’s 1998 Double Time disc Then & Now and has since been featured on Alexander’s Gentle Ballads series of discs on Venus). Alexander is especially inspired in this setting, which is a joy since, with the exception of his great 1995 Eric Alexander In Europe and his 1997 Alexander The Great, the saxophonist hardly ever records in an organ combo. LeDonne and Alexander are exceptionally well partnered here and receive the superbly fine accompaniment of guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Together, this quartet has concocted a tremendous program that ranks among the best work all participants have laid down to disc. LeDonne’s organic signature seems most inspired by Charles Earland, notably on the inspired and soulful take of EW&F’s otherwise icky “After the Love Has Gone” and the two (!) covers of otherwise slushy Carpenters tunes, “Superstar” and “The Long to Be Close to You.” But there are any number of other influences actively at work here, especially given the program at hand (“One For Don,” for Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith’s “You’ll See,” etc.). LeDonne displays no fear whatsoever on the organ and contributes some spectacularly inspired playing as well as two engaging originals, “One For Don” and “Silverdust” (for Horace Silver) and most remarkably spins, pardon the accidental pun, silver out of hay on “Delilah” (one of the disc’s best moments), “After The Love Has Gone,” Donald Byrd’s little-know “French Spice,” originally heard on the trumpeter’s 1961 album Free Form, and the little-known Howard McGee gem “Pisces Soul,” originally from a 1968 Don Patterson album called Boppin’ and Burnin’. Everything about Smokin’ Out Loud (lots of fire references, huh? Oh, and originals first laid down by Rudy Van Gelder) reminds one of those great old Prestige recordings from the late 60s. Nothing wrong with that. All in all, this is a great quartet playing great together and a joy to hear over and over again. No matter how you slice it, this is one of the decade’s more notable recordings – for all concerned. For Mike LeDonne, Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Joe Farnsworth are all truly smoking here.

Close Up – Jim Snidero Featuring Eric Alexander (Milestone, 2004): Alto saxophonist Jim Snidero came up in the bands of Brother Jack McDuff and Toshiko Akiyoshi before launching out on his own in the mid eighties. Since the mid nineties, he has frequently played and recorded with David Hazeltine, as has the pianist’s fellow One For All band mate Eric Alexander. Aside from the fact that both Snidero and Alexander were recording for, among others, the Milestone label at the time, it is probably Hazeltine that united the two saxophonists for this, their only recording together. It’s a shame Snidero isn’t better known. He’s a marvelously swinging alto player of some fettle and finesse who thankfully doesn’t immediately call to mind an earlier or greater player. Ok, maybe there’s a little bit of Sonny Stitt in the phrasing. But just a little. Snidero’s real mark comes as a composer of some note. He often composes much of what he performs, a real rarity in today’s jazz, and his music bears a unique logic that’s very much in the tradition of strong post-bop composition (he also marvelously arranged his own lovely 2003 album Strings). Eric Alexander appears on five of this typically straight-ahead date’s eight tracks, “Close Up,” “Nippon Blue” (without Hazeltine), “Blues for the Moment,” “Reality” (the disc’s highlight) and “Smash” – all Snidero compositions. The two saxophonists complement one another particularly well. This isn’t one of those cutting competitions of yore, but rather an exchange of ideas between two players with many particularly good, melodic ideas.

Shifting Sands – Bob DeVos (Savant, 2005): Guitarist Bob DeVos has had a spotty career on records. His first known appearance was as part of Groove Holmes’ album Good Vibrations (Muse, 1977). Seemingly, then, he just vanished, though still active in any number of name-band organ groups, only to turn up two decades later on Charles Earland’s Blowin’ The Blues Away (HighNote, 1997), which also featured Eric Alexander. DeVos and Alexander went onto play extensively with Earland until the Mighty Burner’s sudden death in 1999 and together they waxed a fine tribute to the B3 master with Keepers of the Flame (2000). DeVos has since launched into his own solo career, often getting big wigs like Gene Ludwig and Billy James to appear on his consistently engaging recordings. There is nothing spotty about this guy’s playing. Usually framed quite nicely in an organic groove, DeVos is a wonderfully warm player whose every note is drenched in a bluesy, soulful passion. The program here is dominated by DeVos’s sparkling organ trio originals. But the album’s brightest moment comes when the guitarist travels fearlessly into Antonio Carlos Jobim’s wondrously colorful and too-little known “Mojave” (introduced by the composer on his 1967 CTI album Wave). The lead-off track, “Lost And Found” is yet another highlight. Eric Alexander is heard to particularly good effect on three of this fine album’s nine mostly mid-tempo tunes, “Three/Four Miss C,” a song written for DeVos’s wife which affectionately recalls the many Stanley Turrentine/Shirley Scott minor-key blues of the sixties, “Track and Field” and another rather Turrentine-esque take on “Willow Weep For Me.” The tenor saxophonist isn’t often heard with a guitar, which makes Shifting Sands even more compelling. But it is worth noting how much the saxophonist tones down his fiery instincts to a low burn in order to complement the guitarist. Rather than overpower the soloist or this particular player’s considerably soulful palette, Alexander adds just the right amount of color and light.

On Fire – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2006): While the title may serve as a pun on this group’s working engagement at the Smoke club in New York City, it also aptly describes the music within – something of a rarity in the pun-filled jazz world. The difference between this set and the previous studio-recording Smokin’ Out Loud (2003) is that this recording captures the group live at one (well, two) of its Smoke gigs. Leader LeDonne, here manning the Hammond B3 throughout, again shows a marked affinity for Jimmy Smith (“At Long Last Love” – even though the best-known organ version of this tune is Grant Green’s 1965 recording with Larry Young), Don Patterson (“Prayer for Mary,” “In The Bag”) and Charles Earland (“Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”), even covering – rather remarkably – the Mighty Burner’s great “Spinky” (first heard on the composer’s 1972 album Live at the Lighthouse), which both saxist Eric Alexander and guitarist Peter Bernstein shred with some of their best playing. There are any number of nice surprises here, including Earland’s “Spinky,” a well-deserved meditation on Duke Pearson’s ingenious “Idle Moments” (first heard on Grant Green’s sensational 1964 Blue Note album of the same name and finding Alexander to be nothing at all like Joe Henderson), the Coltrane-meets-Dr. Lonnie Smith groove (check out the Doctor’s take on “Afro Blue”) of LeDonne’s wonderful “Prayer For Mary,” Peter Bernstein’s “Bones,” where Alexander does call up the ghost of Joe Henderson and Nat Adderley’s effortlessly grooving “In The Bag” (something the great composer/coronet player first recorded on his 1962 album of the same name, but this version probably originates from Sonny Stitt’s cover on the 1966 album Deuces Wild) – which elicits LeDonne’s finest performance on the disc. Another great moment in this group’s evolving legacy, this album’s highlights are undoubtedly “Spinky,” “Idle Moments,” “Prayer for Mary” and “In The Bag.”

Playing For Keeps – Bob DeVos (Savant, 2007): Eric Alexander reunites with Bob DeVos for the guitarist’s third Savant album. The album also reassembles the guitarist’s Shifting Sands trio with the tremendously interesting Dan Kostelnik on organ and Steve Johns on drums. There is a higher caliber of jazz staples here than before, mixed with a few of the guitarist’s totally in-the-pocket originals. Eric Alexander features on four of the disc’s ten tracks, DeVos’s very Pat Martino-like “And So It Goes,” the tenor player’s testing ground and most recorded song in all of jazz (despite the fact that Alexander’s only recorded it once before), “Body and Soul,” an oddly but not unattractively slowed-down version of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” (with a spot-on terrific solo by Alexander which touches many points, but alludes often to some of Harris’s finest playing) and the swinging “Wes Is More,” a tribute to Wes Montgomery’s craftsmanship rather than the guitarist’s sound or style. Alexander, of course, plays for keeps when soloing and sounds superb throughout. DeVos has crafted a program that is much more suited to Alexander’s groove than before, without sacrificing too much of his own particular voice. But, as before, it is quite nice to hear Alexander paired with a guitarist, especially one who brings out more of Alexander’s soulful side as Bob DeVos does so nicely here.

FiveLive – Mike LeDonne (Savant, 2007): Recorded live at the Smoke club in New York City, this October 2007 set finds Mike LeDonne paired again with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth throughout. But this time the leader is heard exclusively and rather splendidly on acoustic piano, his primary axe, with guitarist Peter Bernstein replaced by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and bassist John Webber. It’s a quartet that gives the album its peculiarly spelled title. The liners indicate that “(t)his is the kind of record I’ve always wanted to make. Everybody is just playing – not trying to prove anything – and we’re all able to just let it fly.” Truer words may never have been uttered, particularly in defense of something that needs no defending whatsoever. Everyone is in their element here. The excellent program as presented is a potent mix of sweet LeDonne originals, peppered with several nicely chosen covers (Stevie Wonder’s “You and I” and Cedar Walton’s “Bleeker Street Theme,” the pianist’s regular set closer) and jazz standards (Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” and Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad”). All of it smokes, but LeDonne’s originals are particularly nice – the too-familiar and Tynersque “Encounter,” the Harold Mabern-esque “Hands,” which the composer dedicates to the truly inspiring Memphis pianist, and the Ray Charles-inspired “Little M” – dedicated to the composer’s young daughter, Mary. Mike LeDonne establishes a tremendously invigorating set, laying down some marvelous solos and providing a forum for his cohorts to pontificate most pleasingly. LeDonne is refreshingly provocative at all the right turns and reverential, almost to a fault. But the combination is unyieldingly attractive. Eric Alexander shines throughout, particularly on “Encounter,” “Manteca,” “Little M” (which witnesses Pelt’s best moment on the disc, on muted trumpet) and “Bleeker Street Theme.” But trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who has not been recorded before or since with LeDonne or Alexander, is a particularly nice foil for the group. This is yet another wonderful outing under Mike LeDonne’s name featuring tenor saxophone great Eric Alexander.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Eric Alexander “Chim Chim Cheree”

Perhaps it was inevitable that tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander would record a tribute to the great tenor saxophonist, spiritual musical thinker and remarkable composer John Coltrane. But Chim Chim Cheree is anything but the inevitable John Coltrane tribute album.

One could easily argue that Alexander, who was born the year after Coltrane died, is now the dominant tenor titan of jazz that Coltrane once was in his day. But while we still don’t yet have a “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” A Love Supreme or even a “My Favorite Things” from Eric Alexander, this amazing player’s output has proven that he is an inveterately invigorating interpreter and notably sensational improviser on a variety of interesting standards, pop tunes, Harold Mabern originals and some highly engaging originals of his own. None of this takes into account Eric Alexander’s many, many wonderful sideman appearances – something far too few jazz leaders do nowadays or do with the sort of redolent alacrity Eric Alexander brings to the proceedings.

One bristles at the thought of hearing what Eric Alexander might conceive of a John Coltrane tribute. Surely, it is not the slavish and boringly obvious treatise that so many other Coltrane tributes are. That is due, perhaps, to the interesting program Alexander has devised here – a mix of well-chosen Coltrane originals and less-than-obvious covers Coltrane is particularly known for – as well as the remarkable quartet the leader has assembled – featuring the great Memphis pianist Harold Mabern and longtime partners John Webber on bass and the ubiquitous Joe Farnsworth on drums – and the musically inspired Eric Alexander himself, who is undoubtedly behind the unconventional logic applied to each song and, the unquestionably blindfold-worthy source of the gorgeously melodic tenor solos contributed to each of the eight long performances heard here.

If one thing is apparent, this “tribute to John Coltrane” displays the highly original and effective groove this particular quartet has come to establish over time. Alexander had previously recorded something of a Coltrane tribute in 2007 with Webber and Farnsworth (and David Hazeltine instead of Harold Mabern on piano) on My Favorite Things (Venus) but has not worked with this particular combination since the 2004 recording Dead Center (they’re also together on Alexander’s 2001 outing Summit Meeting, Cecil Payne’s 1998 Payne’s Window and Jim Rotundi’s 1997 Jim’s Bop).

The brilliantly musical pianist Harold Mabern is probably most responsible for the disc’s overall sound and fans – such as your humble narrator – can find great satisfaction in his accompaniment and solo spots throughout. But it is Eric Alexander who makes Chim Chim Cheree worthwhile. The tenor titan takes apart each of these tunes without deconstructing any and rebuilds them to suit his own particular purpose. This in itself is noteworthy and commendable.

Highlights of this October 3, 2009, recording include the beautifully Mabern-esque take on the otherwise goofy “Chim Chim Cheree” (which Coltrane played magisterially on the 1965 album The John Coltrane Quartet Plays), the heavy-duty “Pursuance” (the third part of Coltrane’s well deservedly beloved “A Love Supreme” suite), the beautifully post-bop take on “Afro Blue” (something suggesting Hank Mobley, a Coltrane contemporary, but Harold Mabern and Eric Alexander here reclaim this sort of thing as their own) and the utterly lovely “Wise One” (which Coltrane originally assayed rather exceptionally on his 1964 album Crescent). Alexander treats the ballads “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “On The Misty Night” (sic) and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” with some amount of unexpected verve and wit that unhinge them as ballads and proves he’s not merely an upstart or upsetter, but a man bursting with unique ideas and musical invention all his own. “Dear Lord,” a 1965 recording first heard on Coltrane’s posthumous 1969 recording Transition, is given, perhaps, the most notable treatment heard here with something of a sad, soulful groove (similar to Mabern’s “I Remember Britt”) that is both puzzling and moving all at once.

It’s not easy to walk away from this recording without feeling something. So, bravo. Stuff like Chim Chim Cheree simply doesn’t happen too often.

While this disc, which is said to also be released on vinyl too, is currently available only as a particularly expensive Japanese import from my friends at Mundo or HMV, it is worth hunting down as further evidence in the truly wonderful cataloging of one of the only – yes, the only - notable tenor saxophone expressionists in jazz today.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 2

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 1

1. Peril at End House (first broadcast January 7, 1990): While taking a week’s holiday at the Majestic hotel in a Cornish resort town (St. Loo in the book, St. Looe in the film), Hercule Poirot encounters the beautiful Nick Buckley, owner of the neighboring End House mansion. Ms. Buckley, who is unaware of Poirot’s world-famous abilities, casually mentions several recently close calls with death and the detective has reason to fear for the young lady’s life. As Poirot gets to know the young lady, he discovers a web of deceit that builds upon a round-the-world pilot, a drug-smuggling operation, seemingly opportunistic confidants and a particularly unique family secret. First published in 1932 and adapted as a stage play by Arnold Ridley in 1940, Peril at End House is the very first of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels to be adapted by Granada into a feature-length film (about 100 minutes). Oddly, the story had never been filmed before – despite its touristy appeal. It is a typically splendid pastiche of Christie and Granada’s high standard for mysterious perfection. Clive Exton’s characteristically marvelous script sticks pretty close to Christie’s main story, taking away a bit of the literary fluff and minimizing the role of several unimportant characters. But, unfortunately, the film opens some plot holes that are more properly explained in the novel, such as the origin of a bullet that buzzes by Nick’s head, the elucidation of the reason for Nick wearing black on the night of the fireworks (though it becomes apparent upon repeated viewings), the true sender (and purpose) of a poisoned box of chocolates and the true nature of the odd Australian couple, the Crofts. Much of the book is translated as-is for the film, with many lines of Christie’s deft dialog left firmly in tact. Both the novel and the film feature Captain Hastings – although he is married on the page, he still has not yet met Bella in the series’ progression; so he is, as he has been up to now in the Granada series, single. But the film also brings Chief Inspector Japp into the story earlier than the book and perfectly introduces Pauline Moran, who is a real spiritualist, as Miss Lemon into the story as the spiritualist who conducts the séance conducted by Hastings, of all people, in the book. The novel references such past Poirot escapades as The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) in Chapters 1 & 5, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916) in Chapter 14, The Clue of the Chocolate Box (1923) in Chapter 15 and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in Chapter 16 – but since none of these stories had yet been filmed, the film’s plot leaves out all such references. Like the previously-filmed Murder in the Mews, this is another Christie mystery where a significant murder happens during a fireworks display. Polly Walker, who perfectly portrays Nick Buckley, also plays Bess Sedgwick in the 2007 Marple film At Bertram’s Hotel. Carol MacReady, as the Australian Milly Croft, also plays the completely different Miss Johnson in the 2008 Poirot film Cat among the Pigeons (she also appeared in the 1982 television film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy).

2. The Veiled Lady (first broadcast January 14, 1990): Dispirited by the lack of cases that require his attention, Poirot posits that “I regret that I am of such a moral disposition. To work against the law, it would be pleasing, for a change.” Then a heavily veiled lady named Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan asks for Poirot’s assistance in recovering an indiscreet letter being used by the unscrupulous Mr. Lavington to blackmail her. Poirot goes against the law to recover the letter but winds up ensnarling culprits involved in a jewel robbery. First published in the UK in 1923 as The Case of the Veiled Lady, The Veiled Lady was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Poirot Investigates. The highly implausible, yet exceedingly entertaining story is preserved almost word for word by scripter Clive Exton with several smart additions including a comical scene appropriately recalling Peter Sellers’ turn as Inspector Clouseau as the telephone-repair man in the 1975 film The Return of the Pink Panther and a climactic scene filmed gorgeously in London’s magnificent natural history museum. The beautiful Frances Barber, as Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan, later appeared as Hinchcliff in the 2005 Marple film A Murder Is Announced and as Merlina Rival in the 2009 Poirot film The Clocks. Fiachra Trench, who scored seven Poirot episodes during the second and third seasons and went onto to work on Ren & Stimpy, of all things, provided the enchanting incidental music to The Veiled Lady, the first of his Poirot scores.

3. The Lost Mine (first broadcast on January 21, 1990): A British concern headed by Mr. Pearson wishes to negotiate with Wu Ling, a Chinese merchant, to acquire the rights to the only known record of a lost silver mine. Wu Ling fails to appear at the appointed meeting and is discovered dead several days later. Mr. Pearson consults Poirot on the matter and the journey takes the detective into London’s seamy opium-den netherworld. First published in the UK in 1923, The Lost Mine was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Poirot Investigates. Christie’s story is recounted to Hastings by Poirot in a most fanciful way, with the reader as baffled by Poirot’s sudden solution to the crime as Hastings is upon hearing it. The film makes Poirot witness to a seemingly unimportant clue that he never gets in the book, helping him to crack the case more logically than the book allows him to. It is a dramatization that is in many ways superior to the original story. The script enhances the story with several dashes of daring do: Poirot and Hastings, for instance, engaged in a mostly symbolic game of Monopoly (despite the fact that the film takes place in 1935 and the British version of the board game was not introduced until 1936); an investment firm’s news-making failure bankrupting many, giving the crime’s perpetrator more of a motive to do what he did; Poirot discovering that his bank account has been horrifically overdrafted; and the rather extended detective work of Chief Inspector Japp (Inspector Mitchell helms the book’s investigation, much to Poirot’s dissatisfaction) and his modern methods of police surveillance. Like Peril at End House, this is also one of Agatha Christie’s hard-to-accept situations where the one who initially consulted the world’s greatest detective about a crime turns out to be discovered by the detective as the crime’s perpetrator. The film also enhances the story with some splendidly colorful actors who really bring a special quality of realistic otherworldliness that the book only hints at. These include Anthony Bate as Pearson (a Lord here), James Saxon as Reggie Dyer, Colin Stinton as investment analyst Charles Lester and, most notably, Hi Ching as the bizarre Chow Feng, proprietor of The Red Eyed Dragon club. Barbara Barnes, who plays Mrs. Lester here, also played Esther Walters in the 1989 Miss Marple film A Caribbean Mystery and Mrs. Leidner in the 2001 Poirot film Murder in Mesopotamia. John Cording also reprises the role of backgrounded police officer Jameson from the previous season’s Murder in the Mews.

4. The Cornish Mystery (first broadcast January 28, 1990): Mrs. Pengelley, a middle-aged lady from Polgarwith, a small market town in Cornwall, comes to consult Poirot out of fear of being poisoned by her husband, a dentist who, she suspects, is having an affair with his “yellow-haired hussy” of an assistant. Even though the lady’s doctor insists her troubles are related to gastritis, Mrs. Pengelley is adamant that she is being poisoned. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and assures Mrs. Pengelley that he will travel to Polgarwith the following day to investigate. But upon his arrival, Poirot discovers Mrs. Pengelley has been killed, the victim of the arsenic poisoning she feared. First published in the UK in 1923, The Cornish Mystery was published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of The Under Dog and Other Stories. This story is set up similarly to the Poirot short story How Does Your Garden Grow (1935), but is much more interestingly prompted and, surprisingly, resolved (by Poirot) via the “vox populi,” or, the voice of the people (gossip, rumors, innuendo, etc.). This thin conceit seems more in line with Miss Marple’s village-life métier than Poirot’s citified cynic. But, of course, Miss Christie makes it all sound palpably plausible and the idea is certainly intriguing. Clive Exton, as always, does a superb job bringing this story to life, nicely bringing both Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp into the plot’s machinations. Both David Suchet and Hugh Fraser bring some great comic interplay to the proceedings, particularly during Poirot’s surprising unveiling – with no proof whatsoever – of the guilty party.

5. The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (first broadcast February 4, 1990): A financier, Mr. Davenheim, disappears from his home shortly before a meeting he has scheduled with Mr. Lowen, a former rival and potential business partner. Shortly thereafter it is discovered that Davenheim’s safe has been robbed and a small fortune including his wife’s jewels is gone. Lowen is suspected in the disappearance and the robbery but nothing can be proved. Inspector Japp bets Poirot that he can’t solve the mystery without leaving his flat. Poirot accepts the wager. First published in the UK in 1923, The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim (also known without the “Mr.” in the title) was published as part of Poirot Investigates and bears some structural similarities to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891). In this particular story, Agatha Christie clearly defines Poirot as a man of thought (order and method) as opposed to a man of action, something any one of her American contemporaries would go about quite differently. The film, scripted by David Renwick, who wrote the earlier The Lost Mine as well as the following Wasp’s Nest and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, throws a good deal of witty humor into the film’s mix and even adds a wholly symbolic magic angle that works quite well in bringing the story to life, despite the preposterous fate of the missing Mr. Davenheim, which is left utterly in tact. Renwick also cleverly cues up Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to make the robbery somewhat more believable than Christie’s outline presents, but also much more comically enjoyable. The film ratchets up Hastings’ sleuthing abilities by making him Poirot’s intrepid legman – or, rather, Watson to Poirot’s Holmes or even Archie Goodwin (Christie is professed to have quite admired this Rex Stout character) to Poirot’s Nero Wolfe – whereas the story is uncomfortably content to make the Captain, with hardly any appearance in the story whatsoever, a foolish idiot. Patrick Page, as the stage conjurer who makes women disappear, is a real magician and also acted as a magic consultant for the film. Indeed, David Suchet’s Poirot performs several sleights of hand most impressively. Kenneth Colley, as Mr. Davenheim, will be familiar for, among other things, playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). It is interesting to note that “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim” was adapted as a 30-minute play for an April 1962 broadcast on General Electric Theatre under the title of “Hercule Poirot.” The play, which was the first appearance of Poirot on television, was introduced by Ronald Regan, directed by John Brahm and starred Martin Gabel as Poirot.

6. Double Sin (first broadcast February 11, 1990): During a bus trip, Poirot and Captain Hastings encounter Mary Durrant, a young woman who is acting on behalf of her aunt’s antique shop, to deliver rare miniatures to an American collector. Along the way, the miniatures are revealed to be stolen and, upon alerting the American buyer, it is discovered that he has already made the purchase and the miniatures are well in hand. One of the fellow travelers on the coach tour who had been acting suspiciously is suspected of the heist and the illicit sale of the miniatures. First published in the in 1929 as Road or Rail, Double Sin was later published in the UK as part of Poirot’s Early Cases and in the US as part of Double Sin and Other Stories. Like Agatha Christie’s later Miss Marple novel, Nemesis, Double Sin gets its kicks out of a claustrophobic coach tour. But where the story finds Poirot overworked and needing a holiday to the south, the film finds the detective underworked and dragging Captain Hastings up north. Clive Exton’s script is markedly more fanciful than the original story, giving responsibility for the main investigation, such as it is, to Captain Hastings – Poirot, of course, still solves the case – and having Poirot use Inspector Japp’s “greatest cases” lecture tour as a not-so-apparent excuse to make the trip in the first place. The suspicious-acting man on the bus also gets a trumped-up back story to explain his suspicious actions, which weren’t all that suspicious in the first place. Director Richard Spence, who also directed the series’ next The Adventure of the Cheap Flat and The Adventure of the Western Star, provides some nice settings for the action, particularly along the English countryside and in and around the marvelously stylized art-deco hotel, Midland – which even Hastings finds a peculiar name for a place up North.

7. The Adventure of the Cheap Flat (first broadcast February 18, 1990): While discussing lodgings one evening at a party, a young couple named The Robinsons reveals that in the last few days they have secured a handsome apartment in a fashionable part of town for an astonishingly low rate. Poirot finds the story most curious and, upon investigation, discovers the Robinsons have occupied the apartment for six months and the Mrs. Robinson of the apartment is decidedly different than the Mrs. Robinson of the party. Poirot is intrigued and takes a flat in the same building to investigate further. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Adventure of the Cheap Flat is, like The Third Floor Flat, one of Christie’s few apartment thrillers, a nice complement to her many manor mysteries. Christie predictably mixes traces of Conan Doyle (The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans) with American pulp fiction and exquisitely extends some of her own detective and spy-fiction thinking into the little-mentioned area (at the time) of the Mafia (hinted at in the Sherlock Holmes tales The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Adventure of the Red Circle) for “a most unusual case” and one, that is entirely compelling and engrossing. Richard Spence superbly directs Russell Murray’s imaginative dramatization, adding many colorful settings and excellent symbolic representations. The production team also perfectly peoples the film with a particularly fine cast of distinctive actors. The film starts grandly with Japp, Hastings and a wincing Poirot attending a screening of the 1935 James Cagney film “G” Men (complete with many shots from the actual film) and goes from there. The book’s American secret service agent, Mr. Burt, becomes an unlikely FBI agent here and is performed by the splendid American character actor William Hootkins (1948-2005), who plays the ugly American as a low-rent J. Edgar Hoover, mouthing off ridiculous Hooverisms like “there’s no such thing as the Mafia.” Turning the first “Mrs. Robinson” into a chanteuse was something of an inspired touch, with Miss Lemon picking out a rather obscure clue (true?) regarding “Lullaby of Broadway” (from the 1935 film Gold Diggers of 1935). An enchantingly theatrical sequence – reminding this viewer of what the Broadway presentation of Sweet Smell of Success: The Musical (2002) achieved – where Poirot describes the origin of the crime at hand to Hastings is marvelously shot. The well-done night club music heard here is provided by KPM library composer Neil Richardson, who had done the dance-band music for Peril at End House and would do additional dance band/night club music heard in the Poirot films The Affair at the Victory Ball, Yellow Iris, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman and Murder on the Links. Samantha Bond, as Stella Robinson, appears here five years before her first appearance as Miss Moneypenny in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films and the handsome John Michie, as John Robinson, is on hand, years before becoming well known in the UK as DI Robbie Ross on ITV’s Taggart.

8. The Kidnapped Prime Minister (first broadcast February 25, 1990): Shortly after a failed assassination attempt, England’s Prime Minister is kidnapped on his way to a peace summit of national import in France. The British government asks Poirot to investigate, confounded that the detective doesn’t follow the most obvious clues. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Kidnapped Prime Minister is structured and written very much like one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales of semi-political intrigue, with Hastings as the story’s Watson narrator and Poirot as the brilliant sleuth who, of course, figures it all out. The film winds up a bit differently than the story – neither quite as satisfyingly as they might, particularly after a history of conspiracy-themed stories that post date this Agatha Christie story by almost a half century (also, I do not know enough about the World War I history of England, Germany and Ireland, all of which figure into both plots, to say whether any of this tale holds much water). The initial story banks on a never-explained double of the Prime Minister being unrecognizable shortly after the alleged assassination attempt (which makes sense in the pre-TV days of political oversaturation) but, rather unbelievably, finds Poirot initially recognizing one of the cabinet ministers who secures his services from the pictures published in the paper (which, though highly unlikely, suggests that Poirot pays more attention to newspaper photos than the general public and law-enforcement insiders). The film nicely ups the political conspiracy quotient, but still is rather harder than usual to accept at face value. One of the script’s major weaknesses is precisely why the British government would ask a foreign national to recover its country’s most significant political asset, especially during war time. The book gives a rather peculiar reason. But the film just presumes, rather absurdly, that Poirot is Britain’s preeminent and, naturally, most discreet sleuth. It is, after all, fiction. And at the time of Miss Christie’s story, readers would have been a great deal more open to accepting this bizarre, pre-Ludlumesque logic than readers or viewers would today. Also, the Poirot of the book immediately recognizes – as any grade-school student could – that the kidnapping is an inside job. The film takes a little longer to come to this rather obvious conclusion. Most curiously, Clive Exton’s script changes the Premier’s driver’s name from the significant and obvious O’Murphy to the more generic and ultimately more mysterious Egan. Directed by Andrew Grieve, who also directed the previous The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim as well as seven other Poirot films including the well-done feature-length films The ABC Murders, Hickory Dickory Dock, Murder on the Links and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the film is as good as such a weak story can probably be expected to be. David Horovitch, pleasantly cast as the questionable Commander Daniels, will be familiar to many fans of the Miss Marple series as the consistently befuddled Inspector Slack (The Body in the Library, The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington, They Do It With Mirrors, The Mirror Crack’d) and his ex-wife, Imogene, who has no part at all in the book, is played with a certain fetishistic relish by Lisa Harrow, who will be familiar to sci-fi cult fans of the British/German co-production of Star Maidens.

9. The Adventure of the Western Star (first broadcast March 4, 1990): A famous film actress receives repeated letters that her great diamond, the Western Star, must be returned to its rightful Chinese owner, otherwise it will be taken. She feels threatened and consults Poirot. She is planning with her producer husband, Gregory Rolf, who gave her the diamond as a wedding present, to visit one of England’s showplaces, Yardly Chase, with the intention of making a film there. The place is inhabited by one Lady Yardly, who also owns the Eastern Star, the other half of the Chinese set. Lady Yardly soon reveals similar threatening letters. Both diamonds are then stolen by mysterious Chinese figures. Poirot and Hastings investigate. First published in the UK in 1923 and also as part of Poirot Investigates, The Adventure of the Western Star is a nifty little caper story with some clever little twists. Built upon a solid foundation of lies and literary obfuscation, Christie crafts something of a clever puzzle here. The original story references both The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923, Agatha Christie’s first published short story) as the reason that brings Miss Marvel to Poirot and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920, Christie’s first published novel) as the impetus that brings Lady Yardly to Poirot’s office. Clive Exton’s particularly colorful dramatization remains remarkably true to the original story, but makes some significant changes and ups the comedy element a bit too. Exton adds a subplot featuring international diamond thief Henrik Van Bracks (Struan Rodger) pursued by Chief Inspector Japp (who also isn’t in the book) and, most audaciously, changes American film star Mary Marvelle – whose fame gives the diamond in her possession its name – to Belgium film star (!) Marie Marvel (portrayed unconvincingly by actress Rosalind Bennett like a female version of Sellers’ Clouseau). Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon, naturally, replaces the story’s landlady, Mrs. Murchison, and the Hoffberg character becomes a bit more sinister and important to the plot’s machinations. Hugh Fraser’s Hastings, peevishly put out by Poirot in the book, delivers some of his funniest lines in the film series here. Responding to Poirot’s assertion that “Marie Marvel is the greatest film star Belgium has ever produced,” Hastings replies, with perfect timing, “I should think she’s the only film star Belgium’s ever produced.” In grave seriousness, he also delivers steely one-liners like “Ice cold logic, Lady Yardley. The deductive process.” And, with a sigh of superiority, he tells the hapless Belgian detective, “if only you’d listen to me, Poirot.” Struan Rodger, cast as the curious Henrik Van Bracks, can also be heard as the voice of “Ferdinand” in the performance of “The Duchess of Malfi,” presented in the great 1987 Miss Marple film Sleeping Murder.

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 3
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 4
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 5
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 6
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 7
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 8
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12